Chapter 14: Faith Like A Child
In the summer of 2016, our family had the opportunity to visit northern France to make a pilgrimage to the birthplace and tomb of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Courtney and I feel a great gratitude to Saint Therese for her intercession in our relationship, and as Ellie’s patron saint (her middle name is Therese), we were eager to bring our children to Lisieux. At the time, Ellie was three and Francis had just turned one. As with all pilgrimages we’ve made with our family, the chaotic realities of the trip are nothing like the peaceful days of prayer and reflection that I imagine they’ll be. No matter how holy the site, the kids are still kids. Every hotel room is a minefield in which any sound has the potential to obliterate any chance of sleep. All it takes is one cough, one car alarm, one noisy neighbor, or one inconsiderate dad who forgot to mute his phone as he watched an NFL playoff game, to wake everybody up.
We arrived at the Basilica of Saint Therese just in time to join a mass in English in the crypt of the church where the remains of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, Saint Therese’s recently canonized parents, are buried. Courtney was sitting with Ellie while I tried to restrain our now walking one-year-old son, Francis. At least for our kids, the first few months of walking are terrifying. The kids have no balance, very little depth perception, and no tolerance for any prohibition of walking at any moment. For Francis at mass that day, it wasn’t enough to walk on the floor. He insisted on walking on the pew benches, though I did my best to keep him in the row we had chosen for mass.
I had read a few books on Saint Therese prior to this trip, but I felt like I still didn’t quite grasp the “Little Way” that she was so famous for. I prayed earnestly that this pilgrimage would include learning more about Saint Therese and internalizing her message and her unique approach to holiness. But how was I supposed to learn about holiness, and how could I ever find time to pray when my son was acting like a toddler and not giving me a moment’s rest? As mass continued and Francis was still flailing up and down the pew, I felt like I was failing both as a parent and as a pilgrim.
Midway through the mass, Francis decided that he had graduated from walking and was ready to take flight right there in the pew. He started launching himself, as much as a one-year-old can possibly launch anything, over the back of the pew. I caught him immediately and set him back in his seat, only to have him run-walk to the other end of the pew and launch himself again. It was like the kid had no regard for the inherent dangers, no fear of gravity, and no doubt that he’d be fine because he knew I’d catch him.
Cue the angelic music. It finally started to make sense. Saint Therese of Lisieux’s radical trust in the Father consisted in her profound confidence that God would accomplish in her soul what she alone couldn’t possibly achieve. Saint Therese stands out for her expectant trust that she could throw herself into the arms of her loving Father, fully confident that He would catch her. “To remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness, to expect everything from God, as a little child expects everything from his father.” The Lord showed me, through my son’s wildness, what it looks like to truly trust in God the Father. I’m sure that mass isn’t the best place for toddlers to attempt flying, and I can proudly say that I’ve grown in my ability to restrain my children in church, but I know that I needed to see Francis’ fearless confidence to learn what it means to place more trust in God’s love than I do in my fears and my limitations. Toward the end of her autobiography, Saint Therese describes the utter confidence that she had in God’s merciful love: “I feel that even had I on my conscience every crime one could commit, I should lose nothing of my confidence: my heart broken with sorrow, I would throw myself into the Arms of my Savior.” So often I hesitate to even reach out my hand to God asking for help, and yet we are invited to wholeheartedly place our entire lives in His loving arms.
My faith is usually more like an insurance plan than a radical act of trust. Confident in my own selfishness and unsure of God’s provision, I reach for so many lifelines just in case God doesn’t come through for me. I wish I could say that I stopped caring about worldly things when I got serious about following Jesus, but my faith in God the Father falls far short of Francis’ confidence in my ability to catch him. My children wake up expecting us to give them whatever they ask, even if their requests are ridiculous or impossible. Yet I hesitate to ask for much in prayer, either worried that my requests are annoying God the Father or unconvinced that He could still perform miracles today. How different my spiritual life, and my life in general, would be if I had half of my kids’ confidence when I asked God the Father to provide for me.
Living in Europe, we’re blessed with the opportunity to travel frequently as a family. While I come up with locations I’d like to explore and cheap flights to get us there, Courtney excels in the practical planning. I dream of all the exciting foods we’ll get to try, and Courtney remembers to bring diapers and clothes for the kids. We traveled to the Holy Land one winter, arriving in the beginning of January just as the Christmas crowds of tourists and pilgrims had left Jerusalem. I had been there before as part of a group pilgrimage, so for this trip I assured Courtney that me and my GPS were all that our family would need to get around. Other than a few inaccurate directions that left us in a suburban housing development looking for the Mount of the Transfiguration, the trip went pretty well. There was also an afternoon where my refusal to ask for directions led to us arriving in Cana after the churches had closed. Now whenever we think of the story of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Courtney remembers locked doors and her stubborn husband. It sure was a romantic trip.
One advantage of visiting the Holy Land during an off-season for tourism is that there were no lines to get into the churches. We brought along a children’s Christmas storybook to help explain the places we were visiting to Ellie, who was two at the time. One morning we went to the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the spot where Jesus was born. Because we were the only people in the church, we were able to take our time and we didn’t have to feel guilty for making noise as we explained the significance of the church to Ellie. We read the story to her and still had enough time to sing “Away in a Manger” together before leaving the church.
Later that day we walked through Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross. Our walk ended in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses both the site of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. This church wasn’t quite as empty as the others we had visited, so we were trying to keep the kids quiet as we walked around inside. We waited for our turn to pray and kiss the spot where tradition holds that the cross of Christ was located. After everyone had kissed the ground, Courtney and I started walking ahead but Ellie wouldn’t budge. She started singing “Away in a Manger” once again and insisted that we join her. In this otherwise silent and solemn church, Ellie was singing full voice while Courtney and I whisper-sang to avoid the possibility of still louder reprimands from our daughter for our halfhearted participation.
Kids are so good at being present to the moment. Ellie wasn’t caught up in what other people would think or the fact that no one else was singing Christmas carols when she decided to sing. So often I’m concerned about what others would think of me, and my children remind me what it looks like to freely be yourself. This freedom is wild at times and needs to be tempered with growth in prudence, but it’s a far cry from our adult preoccupations with fitting in and appearing normal. Other than the random cries for chocolate or other late-night menu requests, our kids don’t spend their nights riddled with anxiety over global instability or the trajectory of their lives relative to their apparently successful friend’s recent social media posts.
Because their days aren’t spent regretting the past or fearing the future, children show us what it looks like to fully invest in today. Their days are full of wonder and awe as they appreciate and take time to enjoy life’s blessings much more than I do. One could argue that kids aren’t anxious about the future because they’re largely clueless about basic economic principles, but we adults should also humbly admit that even with all our knowledge and worries, we are unable to guarantee anything about tomorrow.
My children go to bed at night with no clue how life will come together the next day. Ellie may be thinking of tomorrow’s outfit or Francis may be anticipating building something new with his Legos, but they’re largely unaware of everything their lives depend on. They’re not making shopping lists, arranging transportation, or filling the fireplace with wood at night before they go to bed. As far as the kids are concerned, it all just kind of works out.
I struggle to remain engaged in the present; it feels like I’m constantly distracted by what’s coming up or what’s on my plate for the next day. God knew that I’d need multiple daily, living, loud, messy, and needy reminders to be attentive to today. My kids are constantly all-in; they’re fully and emotionally invested in whatever is going on at that moment, whether Ellie’s playing with her dolls or Francis is protesting the inclusion of vegetables on his dinner plate.
I don’t know exactly when the average person begins to feel the need to filter their speech, but I’m mostly grateful that none of my children have yet to reach this stage of development. I say mostly because occasionally their stream-of-consciousness dialogue leads to strange looks from other people. One Christmas morning, we had miraculously made it halfway through the liturgy with minimal noise and movement from the kids. I was just starting to feel a bit of confidence in our parenting skills when Francis noticed one of his friends sitting a few pews behind us.
At one and a half, Francis could correctly pronounce about seven letters of the alphabet. I promise he was innocently trying to simply say his friend’s name, but Francis’ mispronunciation of the friend’s name just happened to sound exactly like a terrible word. It didn’t help that this word rang out through the church at an otherwise quiet point in the liturgy. Courtney and I looked at each other in shock, instinctively horrified by the word and scrambling to figure out how Francis had possibly learned this obscenity. We finally realized the innocence of his mispronunciation, but unfortunately there’s not really a clear point in the mass at which parents have a chance to explain their children’s speech impediments to the rest of the congregation.
In the kids’ minds, no question is off limits, and there’s never a better or worse time to ask a question. Scars, hairstyles, and possibly pregnant women are all topics of conversation that simply can’t wait until we’re safely in the privacy of our home. Often our attempts to silence the outbursts are met with louder repetitions of the questions or comments. When the kids have a question, they ask it, no matter how uncomfortable the topic or how appropriate the setting. Fortunately for us living in Austria, our kids’ embarrassing comments are always made in English in a predominantly German-speaking country.
Prayer time before we put the kids to bed is the best. They pray for whatever is on their mind, no matter how practical or realistic their requests are. Prayers are regularly offered for family members, for the conversion of cartoon villains, or for the whole of humanity with the exception of the one sibling that happened to offend them within the past few minutes. We continue trying to help develop the kids’ understanding of prayer as they grow, but it is a lot of fun to hear how honest they are when they talk to God.
The way that my kids pray convicts me of how often I waste time trying to filter and find the perfect words as if I could impress God or hide my true feelings from him. The truth is that I’m often more honest with Google than I am with God. When I look online for an answer, I type exactly what I’m thinking into the search bar. When I pray, my tendency is to try to get the words exactly right before I’ll say them. I try to sort through my feelings before offering them to God, forgetting that He already knows every thought, emotion, and movement of my heart.
When Jesus rebuked His disciples for preventing children from approaching Him, He said of the children, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19:14). It’s no coincidence that this passage immediately follows a scene where some Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with a question about divorce and remarriage. Christ reminds us of our posture before our Heavenly Father; we aren’t as impressive and put-together before God as we pretend to be around each other. In the lives of the saints, we see an incredible variety of personalities and yet a uniform realization that humility is a non-negotiable when it comes to growing in holiness. There’s a visible difference in the ways that children and adults approach others.
The Gospels record several scenes of impressive, knowledgeable, and well-respected men trying to trap Jesus with their theological questions and hypothetical scenarios. They all keep themselves at a safe distance from Him, refusing to commit to much more than a head nod or a “yes, that was well said” when Jesus responds to their tests. Yet in so many of the stories of healing found in the Gospels, we see the urgent straightforwardness of the humble men and women desperate enough to run to Jesus in their need. Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10) shouts at Jesus despite the crowd’s insistence that he shut up, the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 15) begged Jesus to heal her daughter even though she and her family weren’t faithful Jews, and Martha and Mary (John 11) run to Jesus to let Him know how upset they are that He allowed their brother Lazarus to die. Like children, these people weren’t embarrassed, afraid, or unaware of their needs. They had the courage to approach Jesus, despite the crowds and the awkwardness of it all, and their boldness was rewarded by Our Lord.
I think one of the biggest differences between children and adults, other than size, age, and relative desire for Pez candy, is the fact that kids are really transparent and they haven’t yet figured out how to hide their dysfunction. Even in the ways that I see my kids misunderstanding or failing to trust in my and Courtney’s parenting, our children’s honesty and directness allow us to identify and address the issue immediately. My children make me a better man, and not just because of the patience I’m forced to learn in dealing with them. They live with a confidence and a freedom that I pray they never lose.
Being a dad has been an incredible gift. It’s certainly been demanding as well; these little monsters claim every minute of my and Courtney’s life from the moment they wake up till beyond the point at which they fall asleep. Life is completely different now than when I was single. My weekend plans have never been more lame, my own bedtime has never been so early, the music played in my house has never been so annoying, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I can’t get enough of my kids. When I look at them I see myself, I see my beautiful wife, and I am reminded of the incredible goodness of God that He would bring life from our love.
God the Father doesn’t love us like we’re His grown children back in town for a holiday meal. He loves us with the love of a dad holding His newborn for the first time. Toward the end of the Bible we read, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3: 1-2).
From the beginning, the story of humanity is one of a Father who will stop at nothing to rescue His kids. The Father loved us so much that He sent Jesus to redeem us, and He loved us so much that He sent the Holy Spirit to teach us that we are His children. I am convinced that everything changes when we know the love of God the Father. We’re not orphans left to fend for ourselves or slaves constantly in fear of punishment. We are loved intensely, we are known personally, and we are held tenderly by our heavenly Father. If I’m overwhelmed by my imperfect, distracted, and still selfish love for my children, the Father’s love for us must be beyond words.